Seed Capital Kentucky, a nonprofit aimed at improving Kentucky’s local food economy and agriculture, recently began ambitious plans for a new food hub in the region, with the encouragement of Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. Fischer made building up the area’s food economy one of his platforms during his campaign in 2010, and Seed Capital saw an opportunity in partnering with the city to create something distinct – a hub that would allow regional farmers to more effectively sell their products to a variety of consumers, from supermarkets and restaurants to small businesses producing secondary products like spaghetti sauce or salsa, and also to the community as a whole.
With exciting additions, the proposed "hub" is now a food “port,” and it promises to deeply impact the community and set an example for other mid-range cities with rural surroundings.
According to Stephen Reily at Seed Capital, the organization understood the specific needs presented by a mid-sized city.
“We're not Brooklyn or the San Francisco Bay area,” he says, referencing larger metro areas with more developed, long-standing programs, but they recognized the need for a stronger relationship between the city and agriculture. It had to be more than just the popular farmers market model and more than the expected food hub.
From its creation, Seed Capital provided business and technical assistance grants to farmers, created agricultural training events, aided farmers with Kiva Zip microloans, and gave out local Food Hero awards at the Kentucky State Fair to bring awareness to the local food economy.
When Mayor Fisher requested a large-scale quantitative analysis of residential demand for access to locally raised foods, Seed Capital was there to help. The results were, according to Reilly, on an unexpected scale, with demand at two to three times the anticipated numbers, across not just the more elite neighborhoods where fresh food is an on-trend luxury, but all income levels.
Residents, he says, cited the reason for their enthusiasm was a desire to support both local business and the intuitive appeal of helping local farmers, something they recognized made a difference not only in dollars for the area’s economy, but in the environment and for improving the economic and physical heath of rural Kentucky.
With that input, Reilly says there came a need to ask why current programs didn’t allow supply to meet demand. What Seed Capital Kentucky uncovered was bottleneck in the process, whereby too much burden was placed both on farmers and buyers at either end.
“Chefs, for example,” Reilly says, “needed to interact with a dozen or more farmers just to meet all their needs, and that kind of involvement threatened their efforts at sustainability.”
As a result, Seed Capital Kentucky decided to develop marketing solutions, finding ways to help companies create their own networks of supply and demand. For the chefs, that might mean a one-stop shop for directly acquiring their daily menu needs.
To do that, Reilly says, they needed more than the typical USDA food hub, which would completely focus on buying and selling local food. They needed to come up with something that would serve multiple roles within the local food community.
"Modeling that out, it turned out there were more companies we could involve, and we could provide more uses, serve more segments of the food chain on one site," Reilly says.
From Food Hub to Food Port
The organization quickly realized their vision could serve multiple purposes. While they could manage, as a food hub does, the aggregation, storage and distribution of local products, as well as handle marketing concerns, they also serve other purposes, creating and enabling the growth of small businesses and the overall community as well.
Reilly gives a concrete example of how this might work.
“A farmer can bring an entire tomato crop to sell, but also, on a secondary level, the less-perfect, bruised tomatoes can be sold to someone making a spaghetti sauce, at a cheaper price, and that can, in turn, be sold affordably to the school system, helping to get fresh products at affordable rates. The ability to monetize more of the crop is in place, and you have a distributor, processor and packager all on the same site.”
In addition to the presence of small businesses, the campus – set on 24 acres in an economically challenged neighborhood, to which it will help bring jobs and green space – provides classrooms and the presence of a County Extension agent for teaching and demonstrations, a kitchen incubator for business development, a demonstration farm, and perhaps most interestingly, a waste recycler capable of converting food waste to clean energy and compost. The goal is also to have spent grains from local distilleries brought to be used, along with compost from restaurants and land waste from yards.
A plaza at the end of a city street in a complex will become a food truck plaza, serving Louisville’s burgeoning food truck culture – and in turn, giving food truck chefs the opportunity to build their own businesses.
The neighborhood location has no public gathering space, which the food port can now provide, and a 40-person neighborhood council is already in place to advise Seed Capital Kentucky and the city on the needs of its residents.
Food Port's Groundbreaking
The development of the West Louisville Food Port has already begun, with funding from a new market tax credit already under way. Philanthropic and grant funding began in January 2015 and has already reached close to one-third of its goal. Reilly says the architectural design has begun on the project, with the self-financed bio-digester for the waste recycler commencing construction this summer, and the rest breaking round later this year.